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Safety of Displaced People in Liberia Not a Given, says UN - 2003-08-19

The Liberian capital, Monrovia, appears to be calming down in the wake of a new peace agreement, but U.N. aid agencies are expressing growing concern about the fate of hundreds of thousands of people in the rest of the country who have been without humanitarian assistance for months.

U.N. aid agencies say they are worried about the safety of displaced people and refugees around Monrovia and in the rest of the country. They say militias continue to roam freely, and they said the West African peacekeepers now in the country are not enough to ensure security.

A spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency, Kris Janowski, said officials are particularly concerned about the wellbeing of more than 13,500 Sierra Leonean refugees in the outskirts of Monrovia. He said most of these have deserted their camps and fled into the bushes.

Mr. Janowski said a team of aid workers is traveling from Monrovia to a place called Po Watermark, near the border with Sierra Leone. "This will be the first group of U.N. internationals venturing out of Monrovia and trying to check out the situation there. We are also looking at the option of creating or establishing some sort of safe corridors into Sierra Leone and Cote d'Ivoire, to make it easier to deliver aid into Liberia and also to take out those people from Liberia who want to leave. At the moment, we are basically only doing it by boat, and the boat has a fairly limited capacity," he explained.

Despite the precarious situation in Monrovia, the World Food Program says it managed to distribute food to more than 25,000 people since Friday. But it said this is not nearly enough, and it is trying to step up its operation.

WFP spokeswoman Christiane Berthiaume said a ship carrying more than 2,000 tons of food will leave Sierra Leone on Thursday for Liberia, and other vessels from various locations will follow.

She said the WFP wants to bring in 9,000 tons of food a month. This will be enough to feed a half-million people. "Half a million is really what we would call a working figure because we have had no access outside Monrovia, and in some places it has been for months and even for a year. In Lofa county, we have not been there for one year. So, when we get there, we are quite afraid of what we are going to find there, and probably it is a very catastrophic situation," she said.

For now, Ms. Berthiaume said the priority is to feed the thousands of displaced people in Monrovia who are living in appalling conditions.

But she said it is critical that more peacekeepers be sent to Liberia so that aid agencies can safely reach many other vulnerable people in places that now are off limits.